“When you’re absolute beginners,” folk singer M. Ward tells us, “it’s a panoramic view, from her majesty Mount Zion, and the kingdom is for you.” What he seems to suggest here is that, at any beginning point, there appears an infinite potentiality to life, stretching out like a majestic panorama before us. W.H. Auden, in his poem “Horae Canonicae”, suggests something similar, harking back to the story of Adam and Eve when describing the beginning of the day before God:
…smiling to me is this instant while
Still the day is intact, and I
The Adam sinless in our beginning,
Adam still previous to any act.
This can, of course, be a joyful moment of possibility, yet Auden recognises that the moment of potential sinlessness is an illusion. The day holds another truth as it unfolds:
I draw breath; this is of course to wish
No matter what, to be wise,
To be different, to die and the cost,
No matter how, is Paradise
Lost of course and myself owing a death.
All action as we enter our day, Auden suggests, is somehow driven by the fact that, as humans, we have desired and chosen a wisdom in ourselves, apart from God; we have desired a paradise which would have been given to us had we trusted but which we sought by our own merit and our own means and thus lost.
This moment of decision, begun – and decided – for us in the Garden of Eden yet also enacted daily in every human choice, fascinated an anxious Danish philosopher-theologian to the extent that he used it as the very basis for his seminal – although at times nearly unreadable – thesis on anxiety. The philosopher was Søren Kierkegaard, a man whose name is nearly synonymous with anxiety or, as it is sometimes translated in his work, dread. The Danish word which he used, “Angest”, has a common root to our word “angst”, which is sometimes a synonym for anxiety yet often has something of a more metaphysical or existential connotation to it. Kierkegaard, often considered the father of modern existentialism, is no doubt also partly responsible for this fact. He did not write about anxiety that had a clear foundation in circumstances, though here it is helpful and important to distinguish anxiety from stress: Kierkegaard was not concerned with what we might call anxiety which is driven by something quite clear and located in circumstances. The kind of anxiety or dread about which Kierkegaard wrote had more to do with potentiality: with the possibilities which clouded the human mind, most of them to do with what we as humans were and are capable of. For Kierkegaard, this began in the Garden of Eden, with original sin.
We need to note that, in Kierkegaard’s early life, anxiety had a more immediate meaning and significance. Accounts of his life emphasise the anxiety that his own father passed onto him, begun with his father’s terrified belief that, in cursing God as a young man, he had subsequently cursed himself and his family. Peter Bolt notes in his essay on Kierkegaard that his father “had a rather dark and grim Christianity”, which was no doubt at least in part the result of his belief that he was living under the curse of God and therefore could only fear Him, not love Him. Whether this is the primary “barb of sorrow” in his early life to which Kierkegaard refers in his journals, we cannot know for sure. However, there is another story he tells in his diary, told – in the kinds of veiled terms quite typical of Kierkegaard – as if it were hypothetical, not autobiographical, yet which has more than a ring of familiarity to it when we have read also of his relationship with his father. The story he tells concerns a father and son, “both very gifted, both witty, especially the father”. They share a relationship which is surprisingly intimate and tender, but nonetheless characterised by mutual despair:
Once in a long while the father would look at his son and would see that he was troubled; then he would stand before him and say: Poor boy, you are going about in quiet despair; (but he never questioned him more closely; alas, he couldn’t, for he too went about in a state of quiet despair). Beyond that no word was ever breathed about the matter. But within the memory of man this father and son may have been two of the most melancholy beings that ever lived.
We cannot know for sure that Kierkegaard’s own father-son relationship had any direct bearing on this story, and certainly he used his journals not only for personal disclosure but also as testing-grounds for ideas and modes of expression which would later appear in his published works. This story itself appeared in a slightly different form in his book, Stages on Life’s Way. Yet what he tells us in this chillingly simple story is that fathers and sons can so often keep one another in states of “quiet despair”. Kierkegaard would later call despair “the sickness unto death”, describing it as such because it caused the despairing subject to be altogether unable to find hope of transformation in God. In this way we see that despair and anxiety can be two ends of the same spectrum: anxiety lies when we see the potential for destructive action within us, and despair when such destructive action, occurring against or within us, has led us to a point of hopelessness. Yet both are based on the invisible and the inward: there was nothing objective to tell Kierkegaard’s father that he was cursed, any more than could be said of any other family that experienced suffering. Both anxiety and despair therefore seem to deal with the realms of possibility: either negative possibility, or the apparent absence of any possible good. Kierkegaard’s father despaired because he believed himself and his family cursed; his actions and choices seemed then to determine their future, and that future was an altogether helpless one.
Significantly, Kierkegaard notes in The Sickness Unto Death that the human ability to despair is a positive thing; yet the actuality of despair is not. If humans can despair, they are able to anticipate a negative situation and stop it before it happens:
The possibility of this sickness [despair] is man’s advantage over the beast; to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s advantage over natural man; to be cured of this sickness is the Christian’s blessedness.
Yet to sink into the sickness leads to death. This moment of potentiality lies at the heart of much of what Kierkegaard writes about both anxiety and depression. Writing elsewhere on “the despair of possibility”, he says:
In possibility everything is possible. Hence in possibility one can go astray in all possible ways, but essentially in two. One is the wishful yearning form, the other is the melancholy fantastic – on the one hand hope; on the other, fear or anguished dread.
For Kierkegaard, the kind of “panoramic view” which M. Ward describes is not always positive. We can go astray when we think of possibility in too “wishful” and ungrounded a manner. Yet more importantly we can go astray when we fear possibility. The panoramic view could hold any number of things, both good and bad, much as an agoraphobic will fear an open space for the dangers or threatening crowds that might soon occupy it.
But why would we fear open possibility? Kierkegaard writes of such fear as the consequence of original sin. In a highly complex thesis, he explores how our sinful action now differs from original sin: “Adam’s sin”, he writes, “has sinfulness as its consequence”, whereas our sin “presupposes sinfulness as its condition”. That is to say, just like in Auden’s vision of waking to a new day, it has already been predetermined in humanity that sin will influence our actions and our decisions. Yet on-going human action perpetuates sin: “sinfulness is in the world only insofar as it enters through sin”’; that is, each time we sin, sin “enters the world”. It only exists in the world through sinful action, because, if it pre-existed human action, then it could only be said that Adam sinned because sin already existed, and thus he would not be culpable; nor would we.
This is a line of argument which is bound to make many people’s heads spin, and some may feel more anxious on reading Kierkegaard’s account of anxiety than before they began. Yet there seems to be a very helpful thread within his thesis onto which we can hold: just as humans have been able to take a “qualitative leap” into sin, so too can we take an equivalent, though infinitely more liberating, leap into repentance and freedom. We feel anxiety when we stand at the moment of decision, when we recognise in ourselves both the desire for goodness and the impulse towards sin. In this vein, Kierkegaard defines anxiety as “freedom’s self-disclosure before itself in possibility”: anxiety stems from the possibility that something destructive may happen, and invokes fear through the possibility and the tension that it brings before it turns into reality. Kierkegaard notes that, because of our conflicted and corrupted natures as humans, we can feel anxiety both about evil and about good; neither sits comfortably within us, at the moment of decision.
If we follow this line of argument, then anxiety, much like the ability to feel despair, can be a good rather than a negative force within us: “Whoever has learnt to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate” (emphasis added). While we may not agree wholly with Kierkegaard’s polemical language here, we can hopefully still see the merit in what he says: that, when we learn to listen to what anxiety tells us – much like when we listen to pain and know that we should act to remedy our physical distress – we can use that moment of anxiety to turn towards God and away from sin.
In this sense, Kierkegaard can take the rather radical step of describing anxiety as “saving through faith”. Making the clear distinction here that he is not speaking of anxiety which “is about something external” but rather in “the sense that it is the person himself who produces the anxiety”, he goes on to note that anxiety can in fact be seen to be “freedom’s possibility”. If sin is our preconditioned nature, then the fact that we feel anxiety over sin indicates that we have the potential still to turn from sin. Sin, however ingrained it may be within our natures, still remains a choice, so long as it has the potential to cause us anxiety. The man who can kill without any dread over the act he is about to perform has, in this sense, lost “freedom’s possibility”; there is nothing in his mind which enables him to recognise the moment of choice between sin and righteousness.
There is, no doubt, a more nuanced theological discussion needed here, about the two natures of man and about the extent to which sin hardens us to the possibility of righteousness. Yet we see, for instance, in Paul’s account of sin in Romans 7 that the human heart is capable of swinging between a desire to do good and an inability to do so. This, of course, remains an impasse, so long as human strength is our only enabling force. The means by which anxiety about sin can be transformed into a positive, Kierkegaard writes, is “saving through faith”. In a powerful closing statement to The Concept of Anxiety, he declares that “the person who, in respect of guilt, is educated by anxiety will rest only in the Atonement”. There is a firm theological message contained in this brief statement: if we are “educated by anxiety”, we learn of our potential to turn from sin, but also know that it is only Jesus’ sacrifice which can enable that turning to take place. Otherwise, we are stuck simply in the moment of anxious potential, like St. Paul without Christ, doing what we would not do and unable to do the good that we would do.
Kierkegaard, of course, knew very little about the science of the human brain. What we know now is still miniscule compared with what there is to know, yet we are still aware of facts which would, to some eyes, seem to negate Kierkegaard’s highly philosophical and theological thesis. Yet all that we say about the human brain, if we believe that we live in a fallen creation, can only be descriptive, not prescriptive. At best we can say, “Now the human brain appears to operate in this manner, and as a result we feel x in response to y.” We cannot say, “This is the way that humans were meant to be.” If sin, as Kierkegaard firmly believed, has corrupted our ability to choose between right and wrong and has left us anxious, then it seems perfectly plausible that scientists could still find evidence of this problem in a section of the brain – the amygdala, for instance, in matters of post-traumatic stress – which, broken by the cause of sin, now contains the effect. Anxiety which results from the sins of others, though different in its nature, has the same cause as the anxiety which Kierkegaard describes: we fear others, because we know what others can do to us, and our awareness of this has as much to do with our own ability to sin as it does the ability of others to do so. Bullies who become bullies themselves enact this fact daily: that the sin which occurs in another can equally occur in us, and lives on in acts of self-perpetuating, mutual culpability.
Kierkegaard’s life was, sadly, a troubled one to the end. Despite experiencing grace and forgiveness later in life in a way which seemed to transform him significantly, he nevertheless went on to attack the established church in a way which, however righteously motivated it may have been, was not especially gracious. It also remains unclear whether, in breaking off his engagement as a young man, he did a righteous and obedient act before God or made himself a needless martyr. Yet we can be thankful nevertheless that Kierkegaard helped us see a way for anxiety to be, harmful though it is, a pathway to repentance in showing us our own weakness and brokenness before God. If Kierkegaard was indeed “educated by anxiety”, then we can at least to some extent credit his experiences of anxiety with the profundity and beauty of his devotional writings and the many magnificent, God-focused prayers which, broken in himself, he penned as he turned himself and others towards God. This prayer, one of my favourites, is a perfect expression of this:
Father in Heaven! Thou hast loved us first, help us never to forget that Thou art love so that this sure conviction might triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the inquietude of the soul, over the anxiety for the future, over the fright of the past, over the distress of the moment. But grant also that this conviction might discipline our soul so that our heart might remain faithful and sincere in the love which we bear to all those whom Thou hast commanded us to love as we love ourselves.
Or, in still more elegant simplicity, this perfect prayer for any anxious soul:
Teach me, O God, not to torture myself, not to make a martyr out of myself through stifling reflection, but rather teach me to breathe deeply in faith.
To that, we can only say: Amen.
Auden. W.H. (1972). Collected Poems, ed. E. Mendelson. London: Faber and Faber.
Auden, W.H. (1952). The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard. New York: New York Review Books.
Bolt, P. (2008). “Kierkegaard on Anxiety”. In B. Rosner, ed., The Consolations of Theology. Grand Rapids, Mi.: Wm. B. Eerdmans.
Kierkegaard, S. (1993). The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, ed. P. Rohde. New York: Carol Publishing.
Kierkegaard, S. (1996). The Prayers of Kierkegaard, ed. Perry B. Lefevre. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
Kierkegaard, S. (2004). The Sickness Unto Death, trans. A. Hannay. London: Penguin Books.
Kierkegaard, S. (2014). The Concept of Anxiety, trans. A. Hannay. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Ward, M. (2009). “For Beginners”. In Hold Time (Album). Merge Records.